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Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) Bill

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 19th March 2020.

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Photo of Alex Cole-Hamilton Alex Cole-Hamilton Liberal Democrat

As deputy convener of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, I offer my sincere thanks to the clerks, witnesses and organisations that took us through this sensitive and important bill.

The bill is a monument to the strength of our democracy. It comes in the teeth of the worst of international crises, but the business of public policy and Government must continue. It is an example of a bill that might affect only an extremely small number of our fellow citizens, but by their nature, they are a vulnerable few.

It is an indictment of our efforts to realise gender equality and the rights of women that we have to pass an act such as this in Scotland in 2020. The cultural practice of female genital mutilation typifies men’s attempts to exert power and control over women. It has occurred for aeons and it is time that we finally stamped it out. With the bill, we extend a layer of protection to many existing layers of protection, but it is a vital layer.

In the minister’s opening remarks, she was quite right to say that FGM is a hidden practice. However, that does not mean that it does not exist. We should not look at the culture in our country and think that we have got it right. Such acts of savagery or barbarism—I would like to withdraw that word; it is a terrible word to use—happen in our country, which is in no way appropriate. We have statistics on that. Globally, in any given year, 3 million girls are affected, and in Scotland each year, 350 baby girls are born to mothers from countries where female genital mutilation takes place and is the cultural norm.

The FGM protection order will provide the teeth of the legislation. In the words of Leethen Bartholomew from the National FGM Centre, it will give a woman

“the agency and the power not only to take a stance and protect herself but to also protect her child.” —[Official Report, Equalities and Human Rights Committee, 7 November 2019; c 7.]

Those words struck home with me as we heard them in evidence. We have heard several times in debates on the bill that the order will give agency and power to women. It will reverse what the practice of FGM has sought to do in the millennia in which it has been practiced, by giving women the power to defend themselves against the brutality of men.

Until this point in our history, there has been no real legal impediment to the practice of FGM. We have not been able to prevent babies or children from being taken overseas, or to prevent the practice from happening to them at home. It is such a hidden and sensitive practice that people go to great lengths to cover it up.

I welcome the distance that the Government has gone on anonymity, as I said during the debate on stage 3 amendments. It is vital that girls and young women in affected cultures are allowed anonymity when they come forward. By their nature, they are vulnerable. They might have a great sense of shame about putting their hands up and saying that they do not want FGM to happen to them, and they might fear being ostracised if their names become known in their wider communities. I think that we have reached the point at which the bill will protect such women.

Implementation of the bill will be critical, if we are to get the approach right; a bill is only as good as its implementation phase. I very much welcome the efforts that the Government is making to plan focus groups in affected communities in order to shape pathways and structures around the legislation.

I again thank everyone who participated in development of the bill—not least, Saheliya, for example, which is becoming more and more involved with Parliament’s work in helping us to help marginalised groups.

I commend the bill to Parliament.